By Bob Urban
Those in the utility and utility vegetation management industry all understand the emphasis placed on safety. It’s something we must focus on for the well-being of those who work for us, as well as those for whom we work. To ensure that everyone stays focused on safety at all times, the industry implements and maintains safety programs around all manner of workplace risks and procedures.
Some are mandated from government agencies and the regulatory bodies of the utility industry. Others are developed and established in-house. A common link between these programs is the presence of “pillars” that support these programs from top to bottom. What exactly are these pillars? Essentially, they’re the common elements of a safety program:
- Upholding standards for working near energized or potentially energized electrical equipment
- Training employees on working in remote/hazardous environments
- Using proper equipment and keeping it in good condition
- Following processes for reporting incidents and taking corrective action
- Utilizing tools and monitoring mechanisms for fleets
- And many, many more industry safety standards
These are all shared elements of a safety program that form a foundation for keeping people safe on the job each day. However, they aren’t always enough to prevent incidents from occurring. That’s because the space between the pillars is often not considered during safety program development and its ongoing management. It’s these white-space areas where the unexpected can occur — and potentially cause significant delays, fines, legal action, or harm.
It is absolutely critical that a safety program looks beyond its foundational pillars to these white-space areas. But how can one plan for the unexpected? How can you fill the gaps between the many pillars of your safety program?
Take a proactive approach to auditing
Whether conducted in-house or outsourced, safety auditing can help you assess the integrity of the pillars of your existing safety program and identify the gaps lurking between them. Safety auditing isn’t a single function or task, however — it’s an ongoing series of process and practice development; program, team, and individual reviews; worker and workplace assessments, and more — all of which produce an overall picture of your safety program.
More importantly, safety auditing is a proactive approach to safety. And in this industry, being proactive can help prevent many of the unfortunate incidents that lead to OSHA fines, workers’ compensation claims, insurance rate increases, lost business opportunities, and — worst of all — accidental injury or death. We previously covered nine safety audits that you should consider utilizing at random to transition from a reactive approach to a proactive approach and to improve safety results across the board:
- Pre-job briefing — Coordinates crew activities and gives details on potential hazards, work procedures, specific precautions, and required personal protective equipment.
- Aerial lift operation — Ensures crews have proper harnessing, lift platforms are safely positioned, brakes/wheel chocks are in use, and all equipment is functioning properly.
- Traffic control — Verifies that crews are taking proper precautions, are using traffic cones, are following local transportation rules, and aren’t obstructing traffic.
- Tree felling — Focuses ground-level tree felling, verifies proper notching and rigging techniques, and evaluates soft skills such as team communication during removal.
- Crane operation — Assesses electrical hazard clearance, load limits, material security, and equipment operation with respect to manufacturer tolerances.
- Climbing safety — Checks that all proper techniques are followed and that necessary equipment is always used, including harnesses, clips, ropes, and throw lines.
- Chain saw safety — Ensures crews are following handling and cutting techniques in accordance with ANSI Z133 arboriculture safety standard requirements.
- Wood chipper operation — Evaluates crews for proper equipment handling, maintenance, and operation, as well as for proper towing connections.
- General housekeeping — Ensures crews have the necessary work equipment, enough water to stay hydrated, and that things are labeled and stored properly.
These audits cover a vast array of work crew performance areas, requirements pertaining to proper equipment handling and maintenance, and overall work processes. Coupled with other core safety standards and procedures, these audits can help strengthen your safety program, produce consistently positive results during safety evaluations and assessments, and keep both your team and those you serve safe at all times.
It’s important to understand that a comprehensive safety program extends beyond field-level safety procedures and even management-level process development and evaluation. Should an incident occur, it will have both an immediate impact on the workers present and will also impact the organization at a higher level (and, depending on the situation, it could even impact the industry as a whole through regulatory action).
You can create a field-level safety program with pillars or focus areas. You can then supplement and strengthen that program through ongoing auditing. But how can you account for high-level, long-term, broad-reach impact? How can you be proactive against incidents with such far-reaching consequences? This is where the value and expertise of an independent third party can provide valuable, objective insight and assistance.
Consider these for a true comprehensive safety program
So far, we’ve outlined a few of the components of a formal safety program. First, we have the foundational structure of the program: the pillars that comprise training, equipment, best practices, processes, and so on. Next, we have auditing to assess the white-space areas between the pillars to identify potential risks and address them through ongoing inspection and evaluation.
Finally, we have the opportunity to enhance and even protect the safety program itself through specific areas of focus designed to keep workers, service providers, and the utilities they serve safe. These are high-level functions that evaluate safety programs from top to bottom, assess an organization’s level of preparedness should an incident result in legal action, analyze the ability to measure safety data and gain valuable insights, and determine whether in-house or contracted tree crews are adhering to safety best practices (and whether additional education and training is required).
Safety program gap analysis
Accidents and other incidents are often the results of missing information or incomplete training. People don’t know what they don’t know, and, in the field, what a person doesn’t know can be dangerous. An independent safety program gap analysis looks at all the safety-related information provided to crews as well as the processes they follow in a safety program to find missing or incorrect information. It also can lead to recommendations on how to better communicate safety information and analyze safety performance.
Crew assessment and competency training
Whether you work for a utility or a tree care company, are you completely confident that your team fully understands the requirements of our industry’s safety standards? More importantly, do you know without a doubt that they follow them each and every day? Even if you’re confident in your team, that doesn’t mean standards might slip, or critical safety measures might be missed. Consider having your team assessed in the field and evaluated based on their understanding and usage of industry safety standards.
Safety auditing software
There are many ways to measure and analyze safety, but precisely how much time does your organization have to report on incidents, assess performance over time, calculate ROI on safety investment, and assess loss as a result of incidents? These are important tasks that must be done, but without proper tooling, it can be both a considerable time sink and cost on your safety budget. Safety auditing software not only captures important auditing data quickly, but it provides instant insights into performance and areas of improvement.
Expert witness support
Your legal counsel is focused on keeping your organization as a whole safe. But should an incident occur in the field or on a specific function, they may not have the professional experience and insight needed to address the matter as a subject matter expert. This is why an independent expert witness is a worthwhile consideration. The goal is to not need it, but should the day come when it is, having certified, licensed and experienced professionals to attest to the many requirements of the utility industry can help protect your organization.
It’s time to take a hard look at safety
Organizations in this industry must constantly align their safety program with the risks that they face each and every day. While it can be difficult to foresee risks and incidents, keep one thing in mind: there is no such thing as being too proactive, and there can never be such a thing as too much safety. The sooner you start working on your safety program, the sooner it will start working better for your organization.
A great first step is creating a formal budget for your safety program. While you may already have resources allocated to certain safety-focused activities, equipment, or events, a comprehensive safety budget provides a foundation for the future. Without such a budget, your organization may instead be facing reactive costs tied to safety-related incidents and accidents, such as workers compensation, repair costs, and even potential legal fees. By allocating resources to safety earlier, you can decrease the risk of these incidents occurring.
About the author:
With more than 20 years of experience in the utility services industry, ACRT Senior Manager Bob Urban has built a wealth of expertise on everything from operations and sales to training and negotiation. He is a Certified Utility Arborist and attended Paul Smith’s College in New York.